Pain management from the time of recorded history had been crude and largely ineffective.
Primitive attempts to help relieve pain were based mainly on suggestion and distraction. The
former embraced the use of rings, necklaces, amulets and other magical charms; while the latter
included counter-stimulation i.e. the infliction of a painful stimulus sufficient to detract from a
natural one. One of the earliest references to the management of childbirth pain appeared in a
gynecologic text written in the first century C.E. by the Greek physician Soranus of Ephesus.
In the Middle Ages various herbal concoctions based on extract of poppy, mandragora, henbane and hemp were introduced. There is evidence that alcohol was also used in labour. Around the year 1700, Cotton Mather (1663-1728), who was a Puritan minister but also well-versed in medicine, advised women to use potions such as the "livers and galls of Eeles, dried slowly in an Oven," or "Date, Stone, Amber and Cumin seeds."
Even in the first decades of the 19th century, American physician and statesman Benjamin Rush still
recommended bleeding. Rush reasoned that the pain of childbirth stimulated a woman's central nervous system to the point of causing serious side effects. In accordance with accepted medical theory of his time, Rush recommended copious bleeding, as many as three or more pints of blood. This was thought to depress the nervous system and thereby counteract the danger from the pain.
Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) a famous English Chemist, having discovered the anaesthetic properties of Nitrous oxide in 1799 by experimenting with himself and colleagues did not realise its potential. He "breathed 16 quarts of the gas in seven minutes" and became "completely intoxicated" with it. It would be forty-five years later before nitrous oxide would be used as an anesthetic by dentists.
An American Physician Dr Crawford Long (1815-1878) who in 1839 had graduated in Medicine from the University in Pennsylvania, returned home to take over a rural practice. As a student, he had engaged in “ether frolics” and thought there was some possibility of the development of an anesthetic to lessen or remove the extreme pain surgery patients of his time had to endure. He did not have access to the nitrous oxide that had been used in his college experiences, so he began experimenting with sulfuric ether. Careful observation showed him that patients suffered no pain when under the effects of this gas, even when severely cut or bruised. Long took the inevitable next step on March 30, 1842. His patient James M. Venable was rendered unconscious by sulfuric ether, then had a cyst removed. When Venable regained consciousness, he felt no pain at all! Because Crawford Long did not write up his findings until 1849, William Morton is credited with the discovery of Ether Anaesthesia for its use in Dentistry in 1846.